As the United States spirals deeper into debt, the federal government continues to spend, spend and spend taxpayer money on some really bizarre stuff. Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma brings 100 of these schemes to light every year in his annual Waste Book, and we took a look at the past three years to compile the senator’s greatest hits in terms of wasteful studies. Many of these studies are not only what most citizens, whether Republican, Democrat, or Independent, would regard as a waste of tax dollars, they’re totally bizarre as well. Here are 10 of these bizarre studies in all their glory, ranked from the least to the most expensive.
10. Why Do Political Candidates Make Vague Statements? ($216,884)
Political candidates are known for tossing out vague statements more readily and easily than confetti, and one government-funded study intends to get to the bottom of them all. Researchers from Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley received $216,884 from the National Science Foundation to review ambiguous statements made in presidential debates since 1960. They hope to determine why pols are so vague and if being vague makes us vote for them or not.
9. What Happens When a Snake Encounters a Robot Squirrel? ($325,000)
Observing wildlife in the wild is so old-school when you can instead pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to see what a rattlesnake does when it meets a robot squirrel (no, really. As you’ll see throughout this list, you really couldn’t make some of this stuff up.) Researchers at the University of California-Davis and San Diego State University used a chunk of a $325,000 National Science Foundation grant to check out that exact scenario.
The robot squirrel, aptly named RoboSquirrel, consists of a dead, stuffed squirrel with a motor inside; he’s kept with live squirrels so he can pick up the live squirrel smell. The robot squirrel is then placed by a live rattlesnake to see what happens. The results? Rattlesnakes generally don’t like to attack a robot squirrel when the squirrel’s tail is moving or heated, although one snake did indeed bite RoboSquirrel’s head. For a truly surreal experience, you can actually watch a video of this snake vs. RoboSquirrel encounter on YouTube. And as the Waste Book notes, researchers are so pleased with the results they’re already planning follow-up studies — RoboSquirrel 2.0 and RoboKangarooRat.
8. Can Golfers Be More Successful by Using Their Imagination? ($350,000)
Golfers with stinky games can now enjoy the sweet smell of success thanks to the results of an intensive study. At least golfers better enjoy the results, as Purdue University researchers used a portion of two grants to fund it. They dipped into part of a $350,000 National Science Foundation grant as well as a $1.1 million National Institutes of Health grant, set up optical illusions around a golf hole, and found golfers who thought the hole was bigger than it actually was had a better chance of sinking a putt.
7. Does Cocaine Enhance the Sex Drive of Japanese Quail? ($356,933)
Studies have already determined that folks high on coke are prone to engage in risky sexual behaviors, and now researchers want to know if the same holds true for Japanese quail. While Coburn’s report did not specify how cocaine will be administered to the birds, and if it’s even possible for them to snort it up their beaks, the overall cost is crystal clear. The University of Kentucky received an overall $356,933 from the National Institute of Health for the extensive project, which is expected to run through 2015.
6. Are Tweets Trustworthy? ($492,055)
Your Twitter is littered with loads of Tweets, but do you believe all that you’re Tweeted? Wellesley College researchers got $492,055 from the National Science Foundation to find out. The study is analyzing how people determine if Tweets can be trusted and how they react to those they may not believe. The deep stuff gets even deeper, as part of the grant will be used for an online course that hopes to figure out what critical thinking means in our hyper-connected world.
5. Why Do Chimps Throw Feces? ($592,597)
Ever walk into the monkey house at the zoo only to have one of the impish chimps hurl a wad of poop at you? Ever wonder exactly why the chimp hurled that feces? A study conducted by researchers at Agnes Scott College and Yerkes National Primate Research Center spent $592,597 in taxpayer money to find out. Although researchers did not find a definitive answer on the purpose of the poo-throwing, they did discover that chimps that engaged in fecal hurling had better communication skills than those that did not. That is, of course, if you consider hurling your own poop at someone a good way to communicate.
Primate poo has cost taxpayers a merry penny or two over the years, with federal funds twice allocated to a Columbia University researcher who collects wild blue monkey feces — um, that’s the monkey’s species name, not the color of his poop — in Africa to better understand the monkeys.
4. Do Cow Burps Contribute to Global Warming? ($700,000)
Remember how bizarre it sounded years ago when some scientists said cow farts were contributing to global warming? Turns out we should be more worried about cow burps. A federal grant for $700,000 went to the University of New Hampshire to find out just how much those burps contribute to greenhouse gas emissions from organic dairies. The cash goes to fund a computer model that will measure the methane coming from cow belches on organic dairy farms with the hopes of eventually figuring out a way to cut down on the overall greenhouse gas emissions.
3. How Do College Students Use Mobile Devices for Social Networking? ($764,825)
With social networking the hottest craze, taxpayers are funding a $764,825 study to watch how college freshmen engage in this new world. The money, which comes from the National Science Foundation, goes to the University of Notre Dame to keep tabs on 250 Notre Dame freshmen, who get phones with tracking devices, to see where they go, what they do, how they interact and what they buy on their wireless devices. Two more notes on the study: 1) there is no mention of any public policy or other benefit that may come out of the project, and 2) Sprint CEO Dan Hesse happens to be a graduate of Notre Dame.
2. Are Younger Fruit Flies More Attractive Than Older Ones? ($939,771)
As female fruit flies get old (and wrinkled?), male fruit flies are less attracted to them. The males instead go for the younger female flies, which produce greater amounts of pheromones, the hormone that causes sexual attractiveness. All this valuable info only cost taxpayers several million dollars, thanks to a series of grants from the National Institutes of Health doled out to a variety of academic types through the years.
The latest installment of $939,771 from NIH, and a previous contribution of $120,000 from the National Science Foundation, all ensure the study can continue to move forward with new discoveries, such as determining if the results hold true even in the dark when male flies can’t see the older females’ wrinkles.
1. What is the Best Menu For NASA Astronauts on a Mars Mission? ($947,000)
NASA astronauts have enough on their plate, so to speak, to be worrying about suffering from “food monotony.” So feds fork over about $1 million each year to come up with recipes that work on Mars. Never mind that NASA’s manned space missions have been severely restricted by budget cuts and obsolete technology, and the absolute earliest a Mars mission could launch is in the mid-2030s, the money keeps streaming into NASA’s Advanced Food Technology Project.
In 2012, an additional chunk of dough went to researchers at Cornell University and the University of Hawaii, who received $947,000 to study the best food to eat on Mars. The study involves sending six paid volunteers on an all-expense paid trip to a remote area of Hawaii where they will mimic being on Mars, complete with eating and rating the same prepared foods astronauts would be eating in space. Bon appétit, and please pass the Tang!